The lion’s den

Why did so many in the media go in to bat for a figure as dubious as Bruce Lehrmann?

Bruce Lehrmann raped Brittany Higgins. That was the finding handed down by Justice Michael Lee in the long-awaited outcome to the former Liberal staffer’s defamation case – a loss Justice Lee characterised as Lehrmann having “escaped the lion’s den” (referring to the aborted criminal trial) and making the mistake of “going back for his hat”. With 45,000 people watching the court’s live stream, Lee found that sexual intercourse did occur in Linda Reynolds’ office on March 23, 2019, that Higgins did not consent, and that Lehrmann was reckless as to whether she did, adding that Lehrmann was “not entitled to the vindication of his reputation”. (He also found that Lehrmann made false representations about supplying confidential material from his criminal trial to Channel Seven.) The judge had issues with both key witnesses. He found Higgins to be a “complex and in some respects an unsatisfactory witness”, though he repeatedly acknowledged the effects of trauma. But it was Lehrmann for whom he reserved special condemnation, suggesting Lehrmann was a “Walter Mitty” type with a “tenuous” attachment to the truth. Justice Lee referred at times to “human experience”, suggesting that it was obvious why Lehrmann had brought an intoxicated Higgins back to Parliament House. What compelled so many in the media to go in to bat for him, when it seemed perfectly clear what had occurred here?

Higgins was not the “perfect victim” – and the very idea points to the unreasonable standard to which survivors are held as they attempt to prove their victimhood. As Lee argued, there were inconsistencies in her account. But they did not diminish her account of having suddenly become aware of her surroundings that night with Lehrmann on top of her, the judge found, evidence that struck him “as being credible and as having the ring of truth”. Lee offered up well-informed (and widely appreciated) comments about the nature of consent and trauma, and the ways in which the common definition of rape has changed, and he dismissed the myth that victims are supposed to engage in “fight or flight”. His ruling should be a lesson to those in the media who have spent years bullying Higgins, while going out of their way to promote and defend Lehrmann. Unfortunately it’s unlikely it will.

For many of Lehrmann’s defenders, in particular the anti-feminists Janet Albrechtsen and Bettina Arndt, the phrase “believe women” is a dangerous command to be resisted at all costs. (It remains to be seen what is going to happen to Lehrmann’s prime speaking spot at Arndt’s “Restoring the Presumption of Innocence” conference in June.) Justice Lee himself referenced this line, which came out of the #MeToo movement, in his opening remarks, suggesting that the case had become a “Rorschach test” for people clinging to their version of events. Today’s outcome, however, is evidence of why it is important to believe women when it comes to sexual assault, and of why so many reflexively believed Higgins’ account of what had happened to her in the early hours of March 23, 2019, knowing that women do not generally lie about sexual assault. Over the past few years, Higgins has been held to an unreasonable standard – her clothes, diary entries, relationships, text messages and her every word picked apart. Today, it has been proven that, on the balance of probabilities, she was telling the truth.

Perhaps the most alarming part of all this is that so many high-profile media commentators opted to “believe Bruce”, reflexively believing a man who told obvious, contradictory, “risible” lies, and was unable to keep his story straight. Lehrmann’s explanation when confronted with one such inconsistency was, to quote Justice Lee, as “disconcerting as it was unconvincing”. And there was never anything convincing about his claim that he went back to the office to work on Question Time briefs, for example. There remains much to be learned from this case, especially about the way our legal system treats victims of sexual assault. But for now it is safe to say that Bruce Lehrmann has been found – on the balance of probabilities – to be a rapist. Those journalists who went out of their way to deny even the possibility of this finding have serious questions to answer about their own credibility.

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